(Did this review of a strange and compelling new film for Money Control)
The first shot of Rajat Kapoor’s new film gives us a dimly lit corridor (in a run-down hotel, perhaps?) with glimpses of a man and his clones entering and exiting doors until the screen is busy with RKs moving back and forth, each oblivious to the others. Watching the scene, I was reminded of images from the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, set largely in a purgatory-like hotel where a playwright settles down to try and find his writing muse.
This seemed a random link at first, a visual coincidence, but as RK/RKay continued it felt a little more like a deliberate homage. Much like the beleaguered Barton, who learns that “the life of the mind” can be fraught with disillusionment and peril, writer-director RK (played by Kapoor) is a tortured artist struggling with the creative process – with his inner demons and insecurities (that opening shot may well depict the dusty nooks and crannies in the maze of his mind) as well as the problem of being surrounded by plebeians who (in his view) don’t understand him.
Consider RK’s lowbrow producer Goyal (Manu Rishi). In a particularly funny scene, RK is screening his almost-completed film Mera Naseeb – a strange period concoction set in the indeterminate past, probably the 1950s, complete with a heroine named Gulaabo (Mallika Sherawat) and a villain named KN Singh (Ranvir Shorey). “Picture Urdu mein banaayi hai?” Goyal says, looking unimpressed as he hears the ornate-sounding dialogue for apparently the first time (surely it’s too late for a producer to have such an epiphany!) – then he mutters something about such a film being “difficult” for the “common man”. Another assistant chimes in by telling RK “This film is not as third-class as your last film”, and follows this breath-taking proclamation with “Keep the faith.”
As if all this weren’t deflating enough, RK’s insecurities seem to take a tangible form when Mehboob, the lead character in Mera Naseeb, escapes the movie and emerges into the real world. Since Mehboob is played by RK himself, what we now have is a doppelganger tale with two Rajat Kapoors trying to make sense of each other’s existence and personalities: one is courtly and old-world and speaks in elegant Urdu (and makes superb biryani at short notice), while the other is impatient, curt and understandably frustrated by this turn of events.
The interplay between the writer-director and his fugitive creation is revealing. The fictitious-now-real Mehboob has a habit of starting sentences with “Mere Abba kahaa karte thay…”, whereupon the exasperated RK begins grilling his character: “What IS the name of this Abba whom you keep quoting,” he asks Mehboob. “And what did your Ammi look like? Do you remember?” The answer is no, of course, because Mehboob only has the information he is required to have for the purposes of the film; he is a blank slate otherwise. But this exchange also finds its counterpoint in a later scene where Mehboob gets back at his creator with an equivalent of the question “What about you? Who is writing your script?”
A crisis involving a double, the slow blurring of identities through role-play, the fickleness of memory, the illusory nature of the self… these themes were also at the heart of Kapoor’s 2008 Mithya, which still needs to be rediscovered as one of the best Hindi films of its time. At least one scene in RK/RKay – where Mehboob, persuaded to go back to the world he emerged from, realises that he is meant to die and strongly resists this fate – reminded me of Mithya. But RK/RKay is also, importantly, about the relationship between an artist and his creation, which can acquire a life of its own and get away from its parent. “Even the character you wrote doesn’t listen to you,” goes one observation in the film, “Marzi ka maalik hai.” But beyond the specific fantasy scenario presented in this narrative, isn’t that observation true for any artist who sends his work out into the world and then finds he has lost all control over it; that readers, viewers, critics will respond to or interpret it in their own ways?
Related to this is the constant reminder of artists as creators operating in a higher realm vs artists as everyday people. With writers, for instance, a big gap can exist between the deep feelings they express, the poetry they are capable of, and their “real”, prosaic (or even unlikable) selves. RK is the one who writes intense romantic lines for his protagonist, but Mehboob is the one who really feels and lives those emotions (while RK himself, in regular life, seems a detached, unromantic sort – his wife certainly seems more taken by the fictional creation). I was reminded of how often starry-eyed readers – at a literature festival, for instance – have been disappointed by a real-life meeting with their favourite author, and found it hard to imagine how this sullen, uncommunicative creature could have produced words that touched them so deeply.
RK/RKay is the sort of film that has one constantly on the look-out for allusions to other works – from Shakespearean soliloquies (Mehboob spouts versions of “As flies to wanton boys…” and “If you prick us do we not bleed” – a reminder that his creator RK, much like the real-life Rajat Kapoor, is likely a Shakespeare buff) to Milton’s “Did I beseech thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man?” (which was also used as an epigraph for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). And of course, cinema: there is a very cosmetic similarity to the Buster Keaton masterpiece Sherlock Jr (as well as later films in its vein, such as Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo) but there are also the films whose posters and stills bedeck RK’s editing room, from respected classics like Fritz Lang’s M to 1930s genre movies like The Invisible Man or The Mystery of Mr X. (RK and his creation are both invisible men in different ways. Mehboob vanishes from the world of the film he is in – the scenes he was in play out exactly as before, except that he can’t be seen in them; on the other hand, RK himself is probably feeling invisibilised by the reactions to the film he has so passionately put together.)
It’s easy to use descriptors like “philosophical meditation” for such a narrative, but what’s equally important (especially given that this is a rare instance of a subdued, non-mainstream film that has got a theatrical release before making it to OTT platforms) is that RK/RKay is fun and engaging and can probably work even for a viewer who doesn’t care too much about the philosophy or the references. Apart from the dark humour built into the general premise, there are laugh-out-loud moments and lines like “Hero hee nahin baith raha film mein toh audience kya baithegi?” Or, when RK is first told about Mehboob’s disappearance and is assured that there isn’t a technical issue: “Machine theek hai toh kya problem hai? Existential?” (Kapoor brings the same knowing sarcasm to this line reading and a few others as he did to his best scenes as the CBI investigator in the series Scam 1992.)
The film is fun for the most part, anyway: I thought it slowed down in its final leg, with a few random and forced moments involving the fictitious villain KN Singh, and a stretched-out ending that wasn’t hard to guess at. But then, such is the deeply self-referential nature of this film, it’s possible to imagine that even that may be part of RK/RKay’s design. As someone tells RK after watching Mera Naseeb, “The film is lagging a bit in the second half.” I’m not sure any filmmaker would deliberately make a portion of his film uninvolving just to be “meta”, but if anyone is perverse enough to do such a thing it would probably be Rajat Kapoor.
(My earlier Money Control pieces are here)